Will Rodman (James Franco) is a stellar chemical biologist working for the omniscient yet fundamentally money-lusting drug corporation Genesis in San Francisco. Rodman has pulled off a true spectacle of human ingenuity, creating a new chemical elixir that promises to eradicate Alzheimer’s. Rodman’s unveiling goes awry when one of the chimps he plans to showcase goes, well, ape shit. Designer conference room chairs go flying out the window, as do Rodman’s dreams of finding finance to bring his project to the world. His one consolation is a baby chimp, Caesar, whose hereditary exposure to the compound enables him to evolve and learn much like a human child would, only so fast that it becomes much more than just a chimpanzee.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is of course an explanatory prequel to the 1968 Charleton Heston classic, in which humans are mystically transported into the future when civilisation has been entirely usurped by a sentient population of ape-men. The original was something of a cult classic, being made back during the heyday of science fiction exploitation films. What I mean by this is that it contains an abundance of Technicolor tanning, makeup-plastered damsels in distress, lavish studio sets and unconvincing beast costumes. We are no longer in such manual times it seems for unlike its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in every way a slick operation.
In particular, the apes themselves are rendered with magnificent realism. Details like individual hairs and glistening eyes are realised with a subtlety mostly absent from blockbusters; there is none of that incongruous, Transformers-ish CGI. This is because Rise was made using the very cutting edge of motion-capture technologies. One will notice in that the credits for Rise every principle ape character in the film is actually played by a separate actor. This quite rightly indicates that the technology is able to translate the idiosyncratic movements and facial expressions of each different performer into distinct visual characters. To top this off the special effects are singularly consistent – we never see a cut to a recognisably plastic monkey glove, helping the audience to see past the ins and outs of the technology and dive into the plot.
The actor behind the genuinely masterly performance of the Caesar role is the profoundly versatile Andy Serkis. The actor is at home in the realm of motion-capture white dots and blue screens after having famously played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series. There are in fact many similarities between these two semi-human characters. Serkis navigates and fluctuates Caesar’s varying states of animalism and consciousness in a manner nothing short of moving.
Notwithstanding a few paeans to classic monster cinema in which innocent bystanders yell ‘What the HELL!” and the insipid and cruel monkey handler gets his just desserts (Tom Felton allowing himself to be typecast as another villain), Rise is very well written. This is perhaps surprising considering the pre-determined trajectory of the film. With all the expensive special effects and action scenes, most writing teams would have simply attempted to get from Point A (the world as it is today) to Point B (all humans dead, apes reign supreme) in a the simplest way possible. To their credit, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (what names!) have crafted a script in which not only is the audience guided past remembering they know the ending, but actually instil real suspense, in particular with regard to the strains in Rodman’s relationship with Caesar and with his father.
Performances by John Lithgow as Rodman’s father who suffers with advanced Alzheimer’s and Franco as Rodman are pitch-perfect for this kind of high-quality action film. Frieda Pinto as Rodman’s love interest and David Oyelowo as his boss are caricatures, but performed well and un-intrusively. Whilst Franco’s crow-foot-crinkling paternal smiles pack emotional punch, the stars here really are the apes. This is a film with a lot of big moments, the majority of which are written for Caesar and his gang of misunderstood primates. The best instance of this is an extended prison hierarchy metaphor during scenes shot in a primate compound.
The usage of apes in modern narratives throws light on something very interesting about the way humans think of their own biological vulnerability. Think back to all of the apocalyptic movies you’ve watched whose premise involved caged gorillas or chimps being experimented on by well-meaning scientists. Remember 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later, The Island of Dr. Moreau. In the same way that the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial captured man’s sense of anxiety about our nearest relatives, these films portray our need to associate doomsday with a discussion of what makes us human.
It is easy to see why Caesar makes such a complex character rather than just an entertaining beast or monster. Apes make great signifiers of the incredibly improbable, if not miraculous event of the evolution of human consciousness. It was statistically far more likely that all life in the universe turned out in the form of sludge or bacteria, if at all. And yet here we are, thinking, interacting, planning our dominance over the universe and secretly fearing the uprising all of our nearest animal relatives. On the other hand, there’s the primate family, which just never quite evolved fast enough to be in our position. What this gives us is a demonstration of possibility. Some of us might see in Caesar’s knowing black-pooled eyes a flicker of what we used to be, others a forecast of our own downfall. Either way this pre-imagined elegy for humanity uses non-humans to define what being human means.
In light of this favourite cinematic discussion, perhaps it is a good thing that Rise works so effectively to earn our sympathies for the apes. The human characters are by and large easily detestable or meagre, so that when we come to the inevitably successful rise of the apes, or at least the suggestion of it, we’re not too upset about the fact that with it comes the promise us homo sapiens won’t have long before we’re wiped out and Heston has his Statue of Liberty moment. This raises perhaps the most thrilling and tricky question: if apes became so like humans that they took over and became a civilisation of people, would it follow to mourn the loss of humanity? In short, could humanity exist without humans? There is a lot to unpack here, but Rise is by no means a theoretical ordeal. In fact, it’s one of the more satisfyingly swashbuckling films I’ve seen of late.
It’s surely a sign of a well-made film that it leaves a residue in your everyday life. Back at home after watching Rise at the cinema, I was a little unnerved by two interactions I had with my pets. First I had to feed my adorable black-and-white rat Cherokee. As he rattled the bars of his cage in anticipation of his pellets I found myself flashing back to the caged chimp scenes of Rise and distinctly thought “Rat, what are you capable of?” I had then become so sensitive to the possible humanness of my collie Bonnie that I gave her two treats, a paw massage and let her drift off to sleep with her head in my lap. As I stared into those knowing puppy eyes, it was almost as if she knew I was thinking about whether she was capable of understanding that I was thinking about her…